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A 22-year-old Vietnamese woman who came to Japan with dreams of becoming an interpreter was sentenced in January to a prison term of a year and six months, suspended for three years.

The Nagoya District Court handed down the ruling on the woman who obtained a forged residence card to get a job and earn a living.

The case reveals the difficulties faced by some foreign nationals in Japan who lost their jobs amid the COVID-19 pandemic but were unable to return to their home country.

“I’m worried. I feel lonesome. I just want to go back to Vietnam soon,” the woman said in broken Japanese when the writer visited her prior to the ruling.

According to prosecutors’ statements and questioning of the defendant during the trial, she came to Japan in June 2017 as a student, with the corresponding residential status.

After graduating from a Japanese language school in the city of Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, she went on to study at a vocational school in the city of Gifu.

She earned her living by working part-time at a bento factory. She also owed a debt of some ¥1.25 million in Vietnam for coming to study in Japan, more than half of which she still needs to repay.

In March 2020, when COVID-19 started to spread around the globe, she quit the school and decided to go back to Vietnam — only to find out that she couldn’t because flights were canceled.

She obtained a short-term visitor visa to avoid illegally staying in Japan, but because people with such visas are not allowed to work she lost any source of income, and stayed at a friend’s house.

In July last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic showing no sign of settling down, she followed an acquaintance’s suggestion and obtained a forged residence card and a fake ID card indicating that she was a student at a vocational school.

She paid ¥5,000 for the cards, which were mailed to her after she made orders to a broker via Facebook.

She immediately went to a job interview at a major shipping company in the city of Seki, Gifu Prefecture, and presented the forged ID card.

About three months after she started working there, 20 foreign workers at the company including the woman were confirmed to be holding residence cards with the same ID numbers.

The woman was arrested by the Aichi Prefectural Police Department on charges of violating the immigration law and using a forged private document.

“I’m sorry. I will never do something bad again,” she said in Vietnamese at the first hearing in court, admitting to the charges.

The trial was concluded with the hearing, but problems continued even after the ruling was handed down on Jan. 19.

Following the ruling, she was handed over to immigration authorities and was released provisionally but there was still no way for her to return to Vietnam, according to her lawyer.

Under the current law, those under provisional release are not allowed to work.

Three months after the arrest, the woman was again put in a situation in which she couldn’t go back to her home country nor make a living in Japan.

A 20-year-old Vietnamese acquaintance of the woman said she was staying at her friend’s house in Nagoya, but other details about her life remained unknown.

The woman’s lawyer criticized the investigators at her trial in January.

“Lengthy detention of a foreign national who can’t go back to their home country due to the COVID-19 pandemic is shameful treatment from a humanitarian perspective,” the lawyer said.

The government has in recent years increased the number of people coming to Japan from other Asian countries as students and on its Technical Intern Training Program, to cope with labor shortages.

Although the government has taken some measures to support foreign nationals unable to return to their countries because of the pandemic, many were not eligible for them.

The Immigration Services Agency initially gave temporary visitor visas to foreign students with expired visas who had graduated from schools in Japan but could not go back to their home countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they were not allowed to work in Japan.

In late May last year, the agency granted such people visas to engage in designated activities so they could work.

However, those who quit school, like the Vietnamese woman, were not granted such status until Oct. 19 last year.

According to her lawyer, the Vietnamese woman tried to apply for the status three days later, but was arrested.

Meanwhile, because of travel bans and cancellation of flights due to the pandemic, it became difficult for the agency to deport illegal stayers.

To avoid detention centers becoming crowded, the agency actively put those people on provisional release, but it hasn’t permitted them to work.

“If measures are taken to improve the situation, I believe cases of impoverished foreign people engaging in illegal acts will decline,” the woman’s lawyer said.

To resolve the issue of the long-term detention of foreign nationals facing deportation orders, the government submitted a revision to the immigration law to the Diet in February.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published March 21. The government withdrew a revision to the immigration law in May amid criticism over the alleged improper treatment of a Sri Lankan woman who died while held at an immigration facility.

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